PROVINCETOWN — When the Governor Bradford restaurant and four adjacent buildings were sold in April 2022 for $6.95 million, it was no secret that the buildings were not in great shape.
Just after the sale, the new owner, Lexvest Group President Eric Shapiro, told the Independent that the property was “tired and needs work, capital, and a vision — and that is what we do.”
In addition to the main property at 312-314 Commercial St., Lexvest had bought 318 and 322 Commercial St., 10 Freeman St., and 3 Standish St. — a group of buildings with 26 bedrooms in all.
The property’s previous owner, Donald Edwards, had rented nearly all of those bedrooms to Governor Bradford workers at affordable rates. When Lexvest acquired the property and raised the rent, tenants like Brett Buryj, whose rent increased by 50 percent, expected their apartments to become a bit more livable.
Buryj said that his unit at 10 Freeman St. had a cracked window and a stove that broke in October 2022. There were smaller problems, too, Buryj said, like a bedroom door that wouldn’t shut and a toilet without a proper flusher.
Buryj said his rent went from $600 a month under Edwards to $900 a month and was set to increase again to $1,200 in May. When Buryj started asking for repairs, he didn’t think it would end with his eviction.
In December 2022, Buryj said, he began to withhold his rent after two months with a broken stove because “multiple requests went unanswered.” Tenants in Massachusetts have the right to withhold rent if an apartment isn’t properly maintained, although the state’s website warns it is “a serious step and should be dealt with carefully.”
Buryj said that the stove was fixed in early January, but his window remained broken. “In the middle of winter with cold air blowing in your room and it’s overtaking the heat, and you’re shivering under your sheets, that’s not livable,” he said.
On Jan. 25, Buryj received a notice to quit for nonpayment of rent. The next day, Buryj said, someone came to fix the window.
“I completely broke down,” Buryj said. “It broke my heart because I am a loyal employee of the Bradford. Buryj said he is a manager and bartender at the Governor Bradford restaurant — whose owners lease the space from Lexvest — but that didn’t seem to matter to the company.
Buryj eventually found housing through his second job at Bayside Betsy’s. He said he “really lucked out. Other people on the property, if they lose that housing, who’s to say they will find new housing?”
Shapiro disputed Buryj’s story. “We had no incentive to move him out,” he said. “He elected not to pay his rent.”
Buryj said that once the notice to quit letter came, his option to pay the withheld rent was effectively ended. The letter said that “any payment after your receipt of this notice of termination of tenancy-at-will will not establish a new tenancy and will not reinstate your former tenancy.”
Buryj also said that other people who live in the complex have had similar problems and are too afraid to speak up.
Another tenant — who would speak to the Independent only on condition of anonymity — said she has had a broken oven since May and that her refrigerator does not keep food cold. She said she can no longer cook in her apartment.
She also said that her rent has doubled in less than six months, but she is still afraid to insist on repairs due to fear of eviction.
Shapiro said that his company has been working to improve the property but that it takes time.
“I won’t deny that we acquired a tired property,” Shapiro said. “Our business is to restore and help improve the community we operate in.
“We are working as diligently as we can, knowing that we can’t displace people,” Shapiro added. “We take care of our tenants. That is what we do.”
No Rental Certificates
Shapiro also said that when Lexvest bought the five buildings, “we moved to make the property safe and code compliant.” He said that Provincetown’s board of health “went through all the buildings.”
But town health and building records do not include any sign of health inspections of any residential units on the property dating back to the decades when the Edwards family owned it.
Health Director Lezli Rowell said she had walked through the properties one time since Lexvest acquired them but “only for the purpose of counting how many bedrooms there were for wastewater flow.”
Rowell also said that Lexvest does not currently have rental certificates for the properties, which have been required by the board of health since 2005. That regulation states that property owners cannot rent their property “to be used for human habitation without first obtaining a Rental Certificate from the Board of Health.”
To apply for a certificate, an applicant must certify that the property complies with sanitation regulations, including operable and secure windows and kitchen facilities in good repair. That checklist, however, is “an honor system,” Rowell said. The health department does not conduct automatic inspections as part of the certification process.
Aaron Hobart, the town’s code compliance officer, said that Lexvest has not applied for rental certificates since it acquired the properties in April 2022 because “part of the transfer of the property was allowing them time to do certain upgrades before issuing a certificate.”
When asked when the town would require Lexvest to apply for rental certificates, Hobart said, “We will be sending out letters this week, which they will be a part of.”
Rowell said that the Independent had brought the matter to the town’s attention.
Rowell also said that she would be “flagging those [units] for inspection when the rental certificate applications come in. And the building department wants to look at a few things about decking, structure, and electrical.”
Provincetown has contracted with a third-party vendor, Granicus, to help with enforcement for short-term rental certificates, which now cost $750 per year. Long-term rental certificates, which still cost only $300 for three years, have been harder to regulate, Rowell said.
“We haven’t been able to develop a program to capture them; we’re just getting them as they come to our attention,” she said.
Town Manager Alex Morse said last October that the fee increase on short-term rental certificates could generate upwards of $750,000 per year. Board of health chair Susan Troyan said that some of that money could go toward routine inspections.
“One of the things we’ve talked about is freeing up that money to do random inspections on longer-term rentals, even if we haven’t heard of anything,” Troyan said.
For now, Rowell said, the health department can only conduct inspections “based on a trigger,” such as a complaint or a discrepancy in an application. “Unless somebody says something, we often don’t know about it,” Troyan said.
Troyan also said that “tenants can rest assured that if a complaint comes to us, we will try to get the landlord to bring the unit into compliance without risking their displacement.”
The Prince of Whales
One place where the Lexvest Group has been able to make major improvements is the Prince of Whales cottage colony at 104 Shore Road in North Truro, which it bought in December 2021 for $1,375,000.
At that time, Lexvest already owned a collection of hotels, motels, and short-term rental properties here, including the Cape Colony Inn and the Breakwater Hotel in Provincetown, three single-family vacation rentals on Shore Road in North Truro, and two other cottage colonies at 618 and 640 Shore Road.
According to the Provincetown and Truro assessors’ databases, the combined assessed value of those properties, along with the Prince of Whales and the Governor Bradford complex, is $27.9 million.
The previous owner of the Prince of Whales, Fred Sateriale, rented out the 26 units there, including 17 free-standing cottages and two larger buildings, to seasonal workers. It was fondly nicknamed “Little Jamaica” by the many Jamaican workers who lived there during summer seasons.
In February 2022, Shapiro told the Independent that “our foremost goal is to provide housing for the workforce that we need,” but that because the sale price of the property was considerable, it would be “a balance of providing workforce housing and some vacation rentals” going forward.
All 17 cottages are now short-term vacation rentals. The company markets them as having “modern, newly renovated accommodations focusing on comfort and charm.” The two larger buildings house 18 Lexvest employees, Shapiro said.
Prices for the cottages currently range from $263 to $323 per night, according to listings on Airbnb.
The Independent could not establish an exact timeline — but the Prince of Whales cottages were being overhauled around the same time that Buryj was telling his landlords about the broken stove and window in his unit at the Governor Bradford complex.
The tenant at that property who wished to remain anonymous still has a broken oven and refrigerator.
Shapiro told the Independent last year that he had been reluctant to get involved in real estate on Cape Cod because it had always been his place to relax. But he also said he felt like “a doctor driving by a bleeding patient,” because he “had the tools and the ability to improve the neighborhood,” he said.